Are Latinos "White"?

Greetings! I just finished an essay which addresses the question:  Should Latinos be considered "white."  I thought I'd pass it along... Happy Labor Day, Robert

Hundreds of years of cultural politics underly the current debate over the proper racial categorization for Latinos.   For the greater part of U.S. history, Latinos argued for legal “whiteness” as a means of shielding itself from racial discrimination.  At the same time, up until the present day, many Latinos have consistently identified as “white” based upon the influence of colonial notions of race in Latin America.  Such identification with whiteness has the dual negative effect of disassociating the Latino community from the contemporary civil rights struggle in the United States, and perpetuating Latin American racist ideology.

Following the Mexican American War of 1848, Anglo American politicians struggled with how to incorporate more than 115,000 former Mexican citizens into United States society.  Many politicians argued vehemently, and publically, that they did not wish to confer the full rights of American citizenship upon the Mexican population which they viewed as an inferior cultural group.   The compromise, articulated in Article IX of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, was that Mexicans in the conquered territories could choose to become U.S. citizens, but that such citizenship would not take effect until an undetermined future date to be decided upon by Congress.  More than two decades after the signing of the treaty in 1848, the citizenship status of thousands of Mexicans remained ambiguous and unresolved.

Mexicans in California were finally declared to be American citizens in 1870 as part of the famous case of People v. De la Guerra.  Since U.S. citizenship at that time was reserved for those defined by the law as “white,” Mexicans at that moment gained not only citizenship, but also an implicit judicial declaration of whiteness.   Despite their legal whiteness, however, Mexicans, and other Latinos continued to experience explicit, and pervasive, racial discrimination in housing, education, and every other facet of American life.

Latinos challenged racism and segregation in the courts by reasserting that they were “white.” Since they were white, they therefore could not be legally discriminated against as if they were African American, Native American, or Asian American.  In virtually every case they brought to trial, Latinos did succeed in proving their legal whiteness.  Mendez v. Westminster (1947) and Hernandez v. Texas (1954) are two of the most famous cases in which Latinos successfully combated racial discrimination by asserting their white racial status.   Mendez v. Westminster involved the educational segregation of Latino students in California; Hernandez v. Texas addressed the exclusion of Latinos from jury service. Although these were landmark civil rights cases, they also had the effect of disassociating Latinos from the racial plight of blacks and other ethnic minority groups.

The legal strategy of “whiteness,” moreover, backfired against Latinos in the wake of the important Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.   In Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court held that blacks could no longer be segregated from whites in public schools, and that such separation was inherently unconstitutional.  Because Latinos were legally considered white, however, they did not benefit from the legal protections of this case.  In fact, the state of Texas seized upon this legal loophole to justify the continued practice of Latino educational segregation.  Since Latinos were white, Texas reasoned, it was legally permissible to place white Mexican students with African American students in segregated schools.  According to Texas educators, moreover, this constituted compliance with legal requirements for racial integration.

As a means of ending the segregation of students in Texas schools, Latino lawyers in the case of Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD (1970) successfully argued that Mexicans were in fact a non-white minority group which merited protection under Brown v. Board of Education.   Cisneros signaled the end of the Latino legal strategy of “whiteness,” and the non-white legal status of Latinos was further affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Keyes v. School District No.1 (1972).

Although no longer considered white by law, more than 26 million, or 53% of all Latinos, continue to racially identify as white.   Among people of Mexican descent, 52.8% self-identify as white; within the Cuban community, 85.4% identify themselves as white; and, among Guatemalans and Salvadorans, these numbers drop to 38.5% and 40.2%, respectively.

This self-identification as white by most Latinos is perplexing to many non-Hispanics.  This is because the category of white is typically reserved in the United States for Euro-Americans of non-Hispanic heritage.   Why the huge disparity between the way Latinos view themselves and the way they are viewed by mainstream American society?

One explanation is that Latino immigrants bring their own perspectives on race from their countries of origin, and that they view themselves through the prism of this lens.  For example, many from the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora view themselves as white and of  “Spanish” origin.” When immigrants from these places come to the United States, they bring this social identity with them.  When queried by census takers about their racial identity, many self-identify as white.  The same can be said of immigrants from other parts of Mexico, and other countries of Latin America such as Cuba, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Unfortunately, such claims to whiteness are grounded in Latin American colonial views of race.  From the initial arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492, until the early 19th century, Latin American society organized itself around a racial caste system.  Those deemed “Spanish,” or, “white,” received a privileged socio-economic and political status, and those categorized as “Indian,” “Black,” or mixed race, were looked down upon and denied many fundamental rights.   Through strategic intermarriage and wealth, one could “clean” his or her blood of racial “impurity” and gain acceptance into the privileged classification of “white.”  Despite the official dismantling of the racial caste system which accompanied political independence from Spain, such racist notions have persisted strongly in Latin America up until the present day.  These ideas of race have also influenced the decision of tens of millions of Latinos in the United States to self-identify as white.

In light of this historical background, Latinos should disavow their claims to whiteness.  As in the past century, asserting a white legal status disassociates  Latinos from the structural inequality which pervades U.S. society, and which continues to negatively impact many within the Latino community.

For example, in 2010, 26.6%  of Latinos lived in poverty, as compared to 9.9% of “non-Hispanic whites.”  Moreover, whereas the average white family possesses about $632,000 in wealth, the typical Latino family holds economic resources totaling only $110,000.  White families also earn, on average, $2 for every $1 earned by their Latino counterparts.

With respect to educational opportunity, only 8% of low-income students—many of whom are Latino –-graduate from college sometime during their lifetime.  This contrasts with 87% of students from affluent—largely white-- communities who complete their college education.  Further highlighting the persistence of educational inequality, out of every 100 Mexican American students who begin elementary school, only 8 will graduate from college and only 2 will go on to earn a graduate or professional school degree.

A huge healthcare gap also exists between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites.  30% of Latino children lack a regular source of health care, and Hispanic kids are almost 3 times more likely than white kids to lack sufficient healthcare.

By asserting whiteness, Latinos implicitly disregard these grave socio-economic and political disparities which exist between themselves and “non-Hispanic whites.”

In asserting a white racial status, Latinos, in essence, claim a racial identity which is inconsistent with the socio-economic and political reality experienced by most members of its community.   The Latino community is diverse to be sure, but, owing to the very specific historical reasons discussed in this essay, the vast majority of Latinos continue to occupy a racial space which is distinct, and unequal, to that of most Euro-Americans.

By claiming whiteness, moreover, some Latinos also reinforce the racist ideas inherited from the Latin American colonial past.  Those who assert white, or, “Spanish” identity perpetuate racist notions of superiority to the exclusion of millions of other Latinos of African, indigenous, Asian, and mixed-race ancestry.   The painful result is the exportation of Latin American racism to U.S society.

These ideas of racist hierarchy violate God's truth that every individual uniquely reflects the image of God and is therefore equal in His sight. 

The Bible teaches that “God created human beings in his own image” (Genesis 1:27 NLT).  Every person holistically reflects God’s image in terms of his/her:  (1) individual personality, gifts, talents (Psalm 139: 13-16); (2) cultural heritage (s) (Revelation 21:26) ; and (3) gender  (Genesis 1:27).    In other words, when every persons looks in the mirror they are staring at a beautiful and unique reflection of who God is.  This uniqueness encompasses all of who they are—their personality, gifts, and talents; ethnic background (s), and their gender.  By God’s design, every individual is valuable and uniquely reflects who He is to the world.

Latino racism violates these truths because it says, in essence, if I'm of "Spanish" descent, then I'm better than people who are indigenous, black, Asian, or mixed race.  This is deeply offensive to God and to all of us who call Jesus Lord. We gotta call it out.

In God's diversity,

Robert Chao Romero


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Sharon R. Ennis, Merarys Rios-Vargas, and Nora G. Albert. “The Hispanic Population:  2010.”  2010 Census Briefs.  United States Census Bureau. Issued May 2011.

Laura Gomez.  Manifest Destinies:  The Making of the Mexican American Race.  New York University Press (2008).

Benjamin Keen and Keith Haynes.  A History of Latin America:  7th Edition.  Cengage Learning (2003).

Michael A. Olivas.  “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aqui”:  Hernandez v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican-American Lawyering.   Arte Publico Press (2006).

Philippa Strum. Mendez v. WestminsterSchool Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights. University Press of Kansas (2010).

Richard R. Valencia.  Chicano Students and the Courts:  The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality.  New York University Press (2010).

Tara J. Yosso and Daniel G. Solorzano.  Leaks in the Chicana and Chicano Educational Pipeline.  Latino Policy and Issues Brief, Number 13, March 2006. UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.